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Do wellness drinks really work?

Various health drinks in New York, Jan. 16, 2022. (Ted   Chelsea Cavanaugh/The New York Times)
Various health drinks in New York, Jan. 16, 2022. (Ted Chelsea Cavanaugh/The New York Times)

“If I drink this stuff, will I turn into a beautiful supermodel?” reads an Instagram comment on a post from Kin Euphorics, a line of “mood boosting” beverages, co-founded by Bella Hadid.

Probably not, but Kin Euphorics makes some brazen claims about its products. Sparkling drinks in pretty cans will “conjure cosmic energy” and “welcome inner peace,” reads the company’s website. Its beverages contain mushrooms, amino acids and nootropics, substances said to aid in cognitive function and creativity.

One flavor, Lightwave, purports to help “transcend stress” and “open a portal to peace” vis-à-vis reishi mushrooms and L-theanine, an amino acid. Another, Kin Spritz, is said to elevate serotonin and reduce stress “so you can let loose,” according to a Kin Euphorics spokeswoman.

“We’re saying: ‘Nurture your mind. Allow a moment of reprieve,’” said Jen Batchelor, the Kin co-founder and chief executive. “We’re speaking more to how to achieve this sense of bliss and beauty rather than being very prescriptive about it.”

Kin is part of a flourishing “functional beverage” category, often branded with gradient, pastel colors, 1970s nostalgia logos and no alcohol. Poppi, Ruby, Superfrau, Dune Glow Remedy, Droplet, Brighter, Evexia Kafe, Sunwink and De Soi assert that their seltzers, juices and tonics can heal you from the inside out with prebiotics, mushrooms, apple cider vinegar, collagen, ginger, antioxidants, amino acids, nootropics and adaptogens, which is not an accepted scientific term, despite rampant use in the wellness and beverage industries. Some of these ingredients are longtime home remedies and supplements recommended by doctors; others, like adaptogens, are more dubious in their claims and may amount to little more than marketing.

In any case, the drinks are selling. What can they actually do for you?

Purported benefits include a balanced gut, a relaxed mind and brighter skin — similar to the promises supplements and topical skin care products have always made. The caveat: These drinks are not regulated by the FDA and none of the effects has been backed up by regulatory or trade commissions.

Beverage and Beauty Converge

“When I go to Sephora, it’s all of these products offering me moisture and anti-aging benefits, and it’s the same things you see going down these beverage aisles,” said Andrea Hernández, a food and beverage forecaster and the founder of Snaxshot, a newsletter about trendy seltzers, canned wines, dips, cereals and more. “These drinks are literally labeling ‘beauty’ as a function.”

And people will pay up for anything perceived as a shortcut to beauty or better health.

Sales of functional beverages increased by almost 16 per cent from November 2020 to November 2021, according to Spins, a data firm. It’s one of the fastest-growing, nonalcoholic drink categories in the United States. Brands like Poppi and Ruby are sold at mainstream supermarkets including Whole Foods; Erewhon, the California market chain, is an investor in Barcode.

In early January, Katy Perry introduced De Soi, her sparkling aperitif made with “mind mellowing” adaptogens. Barcode, developed for NBA players by Mubarak Malik, fancies itself a better-for-you Gatorade; and Ghia, aperitifs and spritzes with nervines (herbs that are purported to boost energy and alleviate stress), became an influencer favorite on Instagram. Droplet sells a three-can sampler of its sparkling adaptogen drinks — Pretty Balanced, Pretty Happy and Pretty Bright — for $20.

Every aspect of these drinks — how they look, what they’re named, the use of Goop-y ingredients and the prospect of being a better version of your current self — is designed for consumers of “clean” beauty, gluten-free and vegan diets, and boutique fitness. And most of them aren’t cheap.

“Millennials wanted something cooler than Metamucil,” Hernandez said. “They’re making prebiotic seltzer — that’s literally helping you poop — fancy and sexy and want to be seen.”

Many of the ingredients in functional beverages have shown up in skin care, too.

Superfrau contains lactic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid found in moisturizers and serums. Ruby is infused with polyphenols, the naturally occurring compounds in berries and plants with antioxidant properties that are often used in skin care.

“We could sit in a Sephora and Ulta and do really well,” said Allison Ellsworth, a co-founder and the chief brand officer of Poppi, a sparkling beverage infused with apple cider vinegar. Poppi sold close to $35 million of its seltzers and colas in 2021, up from $3 million the year before, Ellsworth said.

Do the Drinks Deliver on the Promises?

Experts don’t know whether ingestible skin care ingredients can actually improve your skin.

Overall, they say the research to support these claims and potential benefits is flimsy at best (and nonexistent, in many instances). It’s an evolution of a largely unregulated supplement and ingestible craze.

Marisa Plescia, a cosmetic chemist at Bell International Laboratories and a research scientist at NakedPoppy, an online beauty store, said that although apple cider vinegar may have benefits when applied topically to the skin — it contains acetic acid and exfoliates and helps balance skin pH levels — “there is little to no information on these benefits if drunk.”

Similarly, ingesting lactic acid hasn’t been shown to improve skin the way topical versions found in serums, exfoliators and masks could.

For Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a dermatologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the issue with ingesting skin care ingredients comes down to an inability to target specific concerns.

“Every dermatologist on planet Earth went nuts and said, ‘Collagen drinking is bull,’ ” she said of the backlash after collagen’s drink and supplement boom of the past few years. But this isn’t exactly true either. “The issue they have — which is not a wrong point — is you can’t drink collagen and say, ‘OK, please go to the skin of my jawline,’ ” Hirsch pointed out.

Dr Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist, neuroscientist and the founding director of the University of California, Los Angeles Brain Gut Microbiome Research Program, believes there’s little to no “hard-core science” to support the many claims of functional beverages, but he does think there’s “something there” beyond mere marketing.

“If I see that some things have survived thousands of years in a healing condition — ayurveda or Chinese medicine — then I almost take this as surrogate evidence in the absence of true scientific evidence,” Mayer said. “Why would people continue to do this for thousands of years?”

Even if it’s hard to substantiate most of these claims, experts agree on one thing: The gut, brain and skin are intimately connected, and what affects one almost always affects the other. Even if your adaptogenic seltzer doesn’t plump or hydrate the way a pricey moisturizer (or injectable) does, a balanced gut could make your skin appear clearer and brighter.

Don’t underestimate a potential placebo effect.

“If you’re taking 20 minutes to have a drink and think about your stress level, that in and of itself will probably make you less stressed,” Hirsch said.

And if you’re less stressed, your skin and gut are less likely to act up.

“Drink it if you like the taste and enjoy it,” Hirsch said. “Just don’t expect much, and if it happens, it’s gravy.

-- The New York Times

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